Catholic colleges continue to serve students amid pandemic uncertainty

For Catholic colleges and universities, reopening campus is a balance between safety and mission.
In the Pews

Are you a student going back to school in the fall or a parent of a college student? Do you teach at a college or university? What questions or concerns do you have about resuming classes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? Let us know in the comments below or send us an email at editors@uscatholic.org. We’ll address readers’ thoughts in a follow-up piece.


The fall semester looks very different for college students this year. Months into the global, novel coronavirus pandemic, colleges and universities that shifted online in the spring face a difficult road to reopen campuses safely. With case numbers climbing throughout the United States, administrators are juggling decisions about whether classes should take place in-person or online, how to operate with increased financial strain and reduced enrollments, and what steps should be taken to prevent possible outbreaks.

“Business as usual is just sort of off the table at the moment,” says Barbara Humphrey McCrabb, assistant director for higher education for the Secretariat of Catholic Education at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

The challenge has already taken its toll on Holy Family College (formerly Silver Lake College of the Holy Family) of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. They announced in May that, after 85 years of operation, they would be closing their doors permanently following the summer term. In a letter to the college community, Sister Natalie Binversie, community director of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, who sponsor the college, cited increased operating costs and changing student demographics for the closure, compounded by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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Desperate to stay afloat and continue providing education for those in need, other Catholic campuses are working hard to find new and creative solutions during a tumultuous time.

“The college experience for fall 2020 is going to be very different from what it normally is like,” McCrabb says. “A lot of campuses are looking at what they can promise students. How can they stay faithful to their mission as they work to care for the members of the campus community?”

How will college look different this year?

Although specific policies and plans will differ among colleges and universities, many are taking similar steps to counteract the spread of COVID-19. Here’s what students can likely expect as the new semester begins.

  • Residential life will change drastically, with many colleges and universities shifting double- and triple-occupancy rooms to single-occupancy rooms. To house the displaced students, some colleges and universities are looking for off-campus housing in nearby hotels.
  • Academic instruction will take place in small groups, online, or a combination of the two. The academic calendar will also shift for many, ensuring that all in-person instruction finishes before students travel home for the Thanksgiving holiday.
  • Student events and club meetings will shift whenever possible to small groups or virtual meetings.
  • Study abroad programs and travel will be largely nonexistent, with more colleges and universities seeking virtual opportunities for cultural enrichment.
  • On-campus dining will be restricted, with limited in-house seating, scheduled meal times, and an increased focus on grab-and-go options. 
  • Student health will be of vital importance, with many schools requiring COVID-19 testing and self-monitoring efforts. Students can expect social distancing and mask policies as well as quarantines and contact tracing when cases are confirmed.
  • Money will be tight after this past spring semester, which resulted in many colleges and universities losing millions to refunded room and board, study abroad programs, and cancelled events. Another financial threat? Student enrollment is expected to be low, thanks to cancelled recruitment events and rising anxieties about the pandemic.

‘There are a lot of moving pieces to consider’

At Marquette University in Milwaukee, a response team of more than 100 experts has been working together for months to formulate an appropriate reopening strategy for the campus of more than 11,000 students. The end result is a five-step recovery plan that touches on everything from social distancing, de-densifying, modifying buildings and classrooms, and student testing.

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“With a large population, there are a lot of moving pieces to consider,” says Xavier Cole, vice president for student affairs and chair of the university’s COVID-19 response team.

“The college experience for fall 2020 is going to be very different from what it normally is like.”

One of the main goals for the team was to continue providing a “personalized, on-campus academic and co-curricular experience” for students, complete with student gatherings, residence halls, and in-person classes when possible.

“We hear from students every day saying they want to be back on campus,” says Cole. “The college experience is a formative life experience and our students deserve our best good faith effort to provide [that].”

One way the school will try to facilitate socially distanced gatherings is by creating circles six feet apart in common outdoor spaces. The university will also continue to offer virtual student meetings and gatherings to help students feel connected to each other and the community as a whole.

Taking into consideration the financial strains faced by many members of the Marquette community, the university has been providing financial aid to affected students with its Bridge to the Future Fund. This spring, the university also launched an Employee Emergency Grant Fund, which raised over $40,000 to aid more than 50 furloughed employees.

“Our mission remains that of a Catholic, Jesuit university dedicated to serving God by serving our students and contributing to the advancement of knowledge,” Cole says. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve put our mission into action by complying with health and safety measures and continuing to foster a culture of respect, care, and concern.”

‘The situation is ever evolving’

Dawn Ellinwood is dean of students and vice president for student affairs at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. She says one of the biggest challenges with reopening has been responding to a health crisis that changes by the day.

“The situation is ever evolving, in light of where the virus is, where it’s expected to flare up next, and if we have students coming from there,” Ellinwood says. “The challenge is being nimble enough to meet the needs and welcome students back in the safest way possible.”

Although Vermont has, thus far, reported relatively few COVID-19 cases, school administrators have been working hard to find a safe plan for students that will also allow some semblance of a traditional college life.

“There’s a certain percentage of a student’s day that is spent in class and a far higher percentage outside of class, where they need to have the opportunity to make decisions for themselves,” Ellinwood says. “When you talk about the college experience, it includes the day in, day out experience of students being together and hanging out.”

The challenge lately, Ellinwood says, has been trying to balance meeting safety requirements and fostering those out-of-the-classroom moments, which enrich the overall learning environment. The school has already taken steps to figure out how annual campus traditions can take place with smaller groups or over video platforms.

“While the spring semester was going on, [staff at Saint Michael’s] started a program to reach out to every single student and check in with them.”

“Saint Michael’s is very true to its mission with walking alongside, supporting, challenging, and really loving each person who chooses to be part of the community,” Ellinwood says. “Certain situations with the pandemic will look different, but that doesn’t change how we do our work.”

Ellinwood says she has been encouraged by the ways in which the community has supported each other already. In the early days of the pandemic, a staff welfare committee organized an effort to supply handmade masks to everyone on campus. When students returned to campus to retrieve their belongings at the end of the spring semester, members of the coaching staff volunteered to schedule pickup times and stand at the campus entrance to assess visitors’ health and welcome them back.

In the months since the pandemic began, Ellinwood says campus leaders have become more intentional about offering spiritual and emotional support for the community. The university counseling center extended their operations into the summer and, after the death of George Floyd led to national protests against police brutality, the Offices of Campus Ministry and Multicultural Student Affairs organized gatherings for students to share their thoughts.

“While the spring semester was going on, my staff started a program to reach out to every single student and check in with them,” Ellinwood says. “I talked to a number of students through that. It was always the best part of the day, asking how they were doing, how their family was, and about any other issues they might be having.”

‘The problems we’d see students having in a normal year have spiked’

Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago is a two-year community college program that aims to provide a Jesuit education for students who might ordinarily lack access to higher education. Like many other colleges, the school has been operating as an online-only institution since March. They will continue to hold all classes online this fall.

One of the earliest challenges, according to Jennie Boyle, associate dean for academic affairs and director of operations, was ensuring all students had access to the technology they needed to participate in online learning. Although all Arrupe students receive a laptop upon entering the two-year program, the staff worked to distribute internet hotspots, course programs, and calculators to students who needed them.

While adjusting to an online model of teaching was a challenge, it has been even more difficult to maintain close relationships and interactions between faculty, staff, and students.

“I’m very worried about how societal inequality threatens democracy. It’s very dangerous in terms of people’s inability to participate in society if they’re cut off from higher education.”

“Our model is all about building relationships with our students in order to assess their goals, their needs, their dreams, and their challenges,” says Boyle. “It’s tricky in this two-dimensional, Zoom-led world to replicate that closeness and that bonding.”

Arrupe’s student population comprises many first-generation college students as well as families with unmet financial needs. In surveys delivered to the community of 350 students, 60 percent reported having been affected by the pandemic economically.

Tommy O’Donnell, coordinator of outreach and support for the Office of Student Services, works as a case manager for students, connecting them to vital services such as financial aid, unemployment insurance, and housing and transportation assistance. He says there has been a significant increase in students applying for help in recent months.

“The students we’re working with are more readily affected by this pandemic that’s taking place,” he says. “A lot of the problems we’d see students having in a normal year have spiked.”

To help support students in a holistic way, the college has been offering an on-campus food pantry as well as online counseling and tutoring services. Student activities like the Student Government Association, leadership organizations, and campus ministry events now meet online. And, if a student misses a class, professors will contact the Office of Student Success so that an advisor will reach out and make sure they’re not falling behind.

Boyle says the work of the past few months has given her a new appreciation for Arrupe’s mission of providing greater access to higher education.

“I’m very worried about how societal inequality threatens democracy. It’s very dangerous in terms of people’s inability to participate in society if they’re cut off from higher education,” she says. “In terms of my work, I draw incredible inspiration from my colleagues, more than I ever have. I’m seeing people utilize their creativity, their resilience, and their intellect to continue to deliver the care for students we’re all so committed to.”

“We will continue to be a source for the common good”

Much of the decision-making at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles has been driven by the charism of the founding order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who believe in providing service to one’s neighbors and responding to the needs of the times.

“Those are two elements of our charism and our mission that guide us as we approach this difficult time,” says Linda McMurdock, vice president for student affairs. “It has been pretty remarkable to see that the institution really does live and breathe its mission. We’re trying to make sure everybody is being taken care of to the best of our ability.”

When considering the university’s future plans, McMurdock says the administration always strives for safety first while working to stay aligned with state and county health guidelines. Like many other campuses, the plan for the fall includes a blend of in-person and virtual courses, with a lot of flexibility.

“We will enter the semester with an eye on being able to flip our semester to predominately remote should we need to,” McMurdock says.

“Our university will never be exactly the same, because we won’t stop what we’re doing now. This will continue to evolve into some very interesting opportunities for our students.”

To ease the financial burden on students and their families, the school enacted an unprecedented tuition freeze for all returning students. The university also made adjustments to academic requirements in the spring, allowing students to designate courses as credit/no credit rather than worrying about earning a specific letter grade. “We’re creating an institution from the ground up all over again,” McMurdock says.

So far, the response from the community has been cautious curiosity about what the new semester will be like.

“People are anxious,” McMurdock says. “There’s a level of uncertainty about the impact this pandemic is having on our society as a whole. There’s some anxiety about what that’s going to look like and what the economic impacts will be for our students and our familial networks. Those impacts are real and very important.”

One way the university is hoping to alleviate fears is with Athenians Care, a public health campaign encouraging students, staff, and faculty to look out for one another to help prevent disease spread. The university is also modifying residence halls, classrooms, and community spaces to encourage social distancing whenever possible.

If there is a benefit of the pandemic, McMurdock says, it is the way in which it has “jumpstarted innovation and the use of digital technology” on Mount Saint Mary’s campus.

“In terms of delivering our education experience, I think this really did ignite in a very intentional and fast way innovative thinking around the delivery of education,” she says. “Our university as well as others will never be exactly the same, because we won’t stop what we’re doing now. This will continue to evolve into some very interesting opportunities for our students.”

McMurdock says she has also been inspired by the continuation of ministry programs on campus, including Masses, virtual prayer hours with music and reflections, and opportunities for “sharing of the state of the heart” led by the Office of Campus Ministry and the university’s CSJ Institute.

“It’s important to continue those efforts because we believe in the uniqueness of Catholic higher education,” she says. “If you are able to work with your students in an intentional way that integrates mind, body, and spirit, you will help to shape citizens of the world guided by a sense of the common good. We will continue to do that because our world needs it and we need it.”


Image: Saint Michael’s College